Justifying the Means: Defending Criminal Dissection in the 18th Century

Execution of Father Garnet in 1606 (Wellcome Library).

In 1725, Bernard de Mandeville declared: ‘to be dissected, can never be a greater Scandal than being hanged’. [1] Mandeville—who had successfully demonstrated that ‘private vices are public virtues’ in his ever-famous The Fable of the Bees (1714)—was not just a political economist, a philosopher and a satirist. He was also a physician. It was in this capacity that he provided ‘the first utilitarian defence’ of the dissection of condemned criminals in 18th-century England. [2] In a series of letters to the British Journal, he wrote:

I have no Design that savours of Cruelty, or even Indecency, towards a human Body; but shall endeavour to demonstrate, that the superstitious Reverence of the Vulgar for a Corpse, even of a Malefactor, and the strong Aversion they have against dissecting them, are prejudicial to the Publick; For as Health and sound Limbs are the most desirable of all Temporal Blessings, so we ought to encourage the Improvement of Physick and Surgery, wherever it is in our Power. The Knowledge of Anatomy is inseparable from the Studies of either; and it is almost impossible for a Man to understand the Inside of our Bodies, without having seen several of them skilfully dissected. [3]

While Mandeville’s defence of criminal dissection may appear entirely ‘forward-thinking’ and ‘scientific’, we must acknowledge that underlying his argument is a deep hatred of the lower classes. According to the writer, those who attend public executions are ‘[a]mongst the lower Rank’. The ‘most honourable Part of these floating Multitudes’ is apprentices and journeymen of ‘the meanest trade’. ‘All the rest’, he adds, ‘are worse’. [4]

Mandeville’s detestation of the lower classes is nowhere more obvious than when he rationalises: the ‘Dishonour [of dissection] would seldom reach beyond the Scum of the People’. [5] Indeed, he argued that the public was entitled to the bodies of the executed. He asks, ‘When Persons of no Possessions of their own, that have slipp’d no Opportunity of wronging whomever they could, die without Restitution, indebted to the Publick, ought not the injur’d Publick to have a Title to, and the Disposal of, what the others have left?’ [6]

Bernard de Mandeville (1670 - 1733)

Mandeville may have been the first to defend criminal dissection on utilitarian grounds in the 18th century, but he was not the last. In 1795, William Cowley wrote that ‘Mankind in general should be convinced of the necessity and utility of practical anatomy’, and therefore should not ‘obstruct the progress of a science, in which the welfare of all society is so materially concerned’. [7] In particular, he argued, ‘All condemned criminals, after execution, should be delivered to an academy of anatomy, for the sole purpose of instructing students’. Furthermore, physicians and surgeons ‘of public charities should have unlimited power to inspect dead bodies, and be obliged to publish their observations, or transmit the same to the academy of anatomy’. [8]

While writers like Mandeville and Cowley argued that criminal dissection was necessary to the advancement of medical science, neither the Crown nor the legislature felt compelled to make a similar justification. Indeed, this argument undermined the true purpose of criminal dissection as a form of punishment. As historian Peter Linebaugh so vividly remarks, the ‘law passed judgement in sable garments and executed sentence with the red towel of the dissecting room’. [9]

Of course, not all criminals were sentenced to be dissected. Each year, the Royal College of Physicians was allowed ‘the Bodies of One or Six persons condemned to Death’, while the Company of Barber-Surgeons was permitted a further four. Yet, the number of executions in London far exceeded the number of bodies legally allocated to these institutions. Although the bodies obtained by the hospitals and private anatomical schools were often done so illegally, some of the corpses which ended up on the dissection table belonged to criminals who willing gave their bodies over to the surgeons.

In 1747, John Wilkins was sentenced to death for ‘Robbery on the King’s Highway’. Finding himself ‘entirely Friendless, and without any Support’ in prison, Wilkins ‘foolishly enquire[d] after a Surgeon to purchase his Body’ in order to ‘supply his present Necessities’. [10] Five years later, William Signal traded his body for decent clothes on the day of his execution, as he was ‘resolved to die game’. [11]

Most criminals, however, feared the surgeon’s knife. Letters from the condemned to their loved ones are poignant, verging on heart-breaking at times. James Caldclough, who was sentenced to death in 1739 for highway robbery, entreats family and friends to visit him at Newgate Prison, and to attend his execution: ‘I beg if you have any Value for me, not to detain yourself from coming to me, which is all the Comfort I have in this careless World’. [12] Similarly, Martin Gray pleads with his wife to ask his uncle for money lest his ‘Body should be cut, and torn, and mangled after Death’ by the surgeons. Countless more examples exist in court records from this period. [13]

Mandeville and Cowley may have justified criminal dissection on scientific grounds, but most people continued to view this act as a form of punishment. Stephen Roe, Ordinary of Newgate Prison, attended the dissection of Richard Lamb on 4 October 1759. In his written account of the event, Roe expresses an opinion which is not unlike that given by advocates of the death penalty in the United States today:

Let therefore the Anatomical Table in the Surgeons Theatre, be a preacher to all this audience: and should their passions run high, and the voice of reason and religion be forgotten, may this dread table present itself to their view. [14]

Whether or not the threat of dissection ever proved to be a deterrent in the 18th century is impossible to know.

1.Bernard de Mandeville, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn (1725), p. 27.
2. Peter Linebaugh, ‘The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons’, in Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (1975; repr. 1988), p. 72.
3. Mandeville, An Enquiry, p. 26.
4. Ibid., p. 20.
5. Ibid., p. 27.
6. Ibid.
7. William Cowley, On the Absolute Necessity of Encouraging instead of Preventing or Embarrassing the Study of Anatomy (1795), p. 12, p. 8.
8. Ibid, p. 13.
9. Linebaugh, ‘The Tyburn Riot’, p. 69.
10. The Ordinary’s Account, 21 January 1747. I am indebted to Linbaugh’s essay for pointing me to the existence of such records.
11. The Ordinary’s Account, 13 July 1752.
12. The Ordinary’s Account, 2 July 1739.
13. The Ordinary’s Account, 3 April 1721.
14. The Ordinary’s Account, 3 October 1759.

One comment on “Justifying the Means: Defending Criminal Dissection in the 18th Century

  1. […] L Murray January 16, 2015 Broadsides & Confessions, Executions, Moll Flanders, Prison Memoirs, Prisons, Trials ‘Execution of Father Garnet Illustration 1606’ […]

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